Trust in yourself, don't dwell on negatives, Lythcott-Haims says

Julie Lythcott-Haims

Julie Lythcott-Haims

She laughed, she cried, she won over the hearts of many. And in doing so, Julie Lythcott-Haims gave last weekwhat was called "the most honest and soul-searching" talk of the Office for Religious Life's "What Matters to Me and Why" series.

Lythcott-Haims, assistant vice provost and dean of freshmen and transfer students, touched on the themes of family and work life that so many speakers before her have mentioned, but she managed to connect the themes together in a way that resonated with nearly everyone who attended, judging from the prolonged round of applause that greeted her after her talk. Several people publicly thanked her after her talk, and many stayed behind to offer her a hug and words of praise.

"We're very blessed that people like you are here," one woman told Lythcott-Haims. "You're an inspiration," said another.

Lythcott-Haims said she was honored to be asked to speak and grateful for the opportunity for self-reflection. Like so many others before her, she confessed to being anxious, stressed and perplexed over what she should say. Her family and her job were the obvious topics that she would touch on in a speech about what matters to her, but she emphasized the need to trust in and take care of oneself as the two most important lessons she has learned lately.

Lythcott-Haims, 37, was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and raised in New York, Wisconsin and Virginia. She attended Stanford as an undergraduate student and graduated in 1989 with a bachelor's degree in American studies. She still fondly recalls that defining moment for many freshmen in which they are greeted by a resident adviser by name as they first walk up to their dormitory, giving them an immediate sense of community and connection to the university. Lythcott-Haims said she likes to think of herself as a "bridge over troubled waters" in many areas of her life, and it embodies much of what she does in helping freshmen make the necessary connections at Stanford that will help them at the university and beyond.

After Stanford, Lythcott-Haims attended Harvard Law School and secured a job as a corporate lawyer upon graduation in 1994. She hated it and came to view the experience as "sucking the life-blood" out of her.

"It wasn't consistent with my principles, didn't fulfill any particular needs other than the so-called need to make a boatload of money, and I certainly didn't love it," she said. "So I set out to reroute my journey, and I did so by making a list of what I thought I was good at and a list of what I loved, and I thought if I could get a job that was the intersection of those two lists, that would make for a joyful professional life."

That new journey led her back to the Farm in 1998 to accept a position as associate dean for student affairs in the Law School. Two years later, she was named an assistant to the president, a position she held for two years until her new position was created in 2002.

Along the way, Lythcott-Haims and her husband, Dan, greeted their two children, Sawyer, who is now 5, and Avery, now 3. The children became an immediate and obvious priority in their lives, and Lythcott-Haims discussed the difficulties in trying to negotiate the balance between her home life and work priorities.

"It does take me away from those babies, this working full time," she said. "But I am paying the bills, and they are watching a professional mom in action, doing her thing, which I hope one day pays some dividends for them both. I do love what I do so much, and it is so much a part of who I am at the core. I can't help but feel that this tradeoff between work and home is part of my journey here in this life."

Lythcott-Haims said she negotiated a 90 percent flex-time schedule after the birth of her second child in 2001 and found comfort in the fact that her mother and her husband look after the kids while she is working.

The struggle to find the healthiest balance of work versus family, coupled with some professional strife that she was going through, led to two major revelations for Lythcott-Haims: She couldn't control what other people think about her (and shouldn't dwell on it), and she needed to take care of herself and her soul first if she wanted to be a better mom, wife, dean and friend.

She said her low point came during the first year as dean of freshmen, when it seemed everything she did offended or angered colleagues and she could not figure out how to make the situation better. "People began attacking my character, associating me with bad things I had played no part in, and before I knew it, my fledgling reputation was seriously at risk," she said. "What was so perplexing was that the skills and approach that had gotten me so far in life to that point seemed to be a foreign language and culture within academic administration."

She said the stress of her situation led to a dramatic weight gain, and she reached a point where she finally decided to stop paying so much attention to the negatives, partly because she remembered something her father used to say: "If your conscience can call you its friend, who gives a damn about your enemies?"

Something clicked inside, and Lythcott-Haims realized that she needed to trust herself and nurture herself and try to lose the 80 pounds that she had gained over the years. She hit the treadmill in her garage late at night, and with the help of Oprah and Dr. Phil, she has lost more than 30 pounds already, she said. Her journey continues, but she's a lot more optimistic about her path at Stanford and beyond.

"I decided that I matter, and that if I'm going to be the best mom and wife and dean that I can be, I need to focus inward and nurture myself a little bit more," Lythcott-Haims said. "And so what I must admit originally felt like a chore, in the days leading up to this and in the writing and revising, now feels like a gift. To have had the chance to spend this much time with myself has been incredibly meaningful."